A sure sign of fall are the swirling antics of a tiny little bird with long wings as it dances around the opening of a chimney in a fantastic ballet with hundreds of its friends as the sun sets. The nightly ‘staging’ of of these little creatures each August through the beginning of October can take as long as an hour or can be over in as little as 15 minutes. The Chimney Swift (Chaetura pelagica), among the most aerial of birds, fly almost constantly except when roosting overnight and nesting. Instead of perching like most birds, they cling to vertical surfaces with their long claws. Chimney Swifts have long, narrow, curved wings and black to dark brown plumage. The birds are closely related to hummingbirds because they share similar wing structures which enable them to be extremely fast in flight. Feeding on the wing, Chimney Swifts catch a variety of insects in their bills. They feed over urban and residential neighborhoods, fields, grasslands, shrublands, orchards, forests, and marshes, usually some distance away from nest sites. Swifts even bathe in flight by gliding down to the water, smacking the surface with their bodies, and then bouncing up to shake the water from their plumage as they fly away. Chimney Swifts create a variety of calls. The most common being the chittering you hear as they hunt through the air. They utter a softer chittering as they socialize with one another in the roost, during nest-building or at night. The most audible sounds are those of the young which have two basic vocalizations: the feeding call which is a very loud, high-pitched “yippering” as they beg for food from the returning parents and a hissing alarm call which they make when disturbed or frightened. Before European settlement brought chimneys to North America, Chimney Swifts nested in caves, cliff faces, and hollow trees. Today, swifts almost exclusively roost and nest in open (flue-less) chimneys. Chimney Swifts breed in urban and suburban habitats across the eastern half of the United States and southern Canada. They are most common in areas with a large concentration of chimneys for nest sites and roosts. Unmated swifts continue roosting together in the summer, sometimes in large groups. But breeding pairs nest exclusively in a single chimney, church bell towers, boathouses, garages, silos, barns, lighthouses, manmade swift towers or even under awnings of buildings. Swifts usually have clutch sizes of anywhere from three to five eggs and usually have one to two broods per year. The incubation period lasts between 16 to 21 days. Sometimes an unmated swift helps the breeding pair rear the young. The young outgrow the nest after about two weeks and have to cling to the nearby wall. They fledge after about 30 days of feeding. The nest is a usually a half-saucer of loosely woven twigs, cemented to the chimney wall with the bird’s glue-like saliva. Both parents break off small twigs with their feet while flying through the trees, and return to the nest site with the twigs in their bills. The completed nest is two to three inches in circumference, four inches wide, and one inch deep. Chimney Swifts perform aerial courtship displays within two weeks of arriving on their North American breeding grounds, forming monogamous pairs for the season. In one of the best known displays, two birds fly close together, calling; first the rear bird and then the leader snaps its wings into a V-shape and the two glide together in a downward curve. At the end of summer they gather into large groups to migrate to South America. According to the Chimney Swift Conservation Association (CSCA), as many as 10,000 swifts may circle in a tornado-like flock at dusk and funnel into a roosting chimney to spend the night during fall migration to the upper Amazon basin of Peru, Ecuador, Chile and Brazil. Chimney Swifts have been in a long-term, rangewide decline of about 2.2 percent per year from 1966–2010, with declines evident in 35 of 43 states and provinces, according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey. This annual rate corresponds to a cumulative decline of 65 percent. Partners in Flight estimates that there are still 7.8 million Chimney Swifts in the global breeding population, with 99 percent breeding in the U.S. and 1 percent breeding in Canada.

Chimney Swifts have been in a long-term, rangewide decline of about 2.2 percent per year from 1966–2010, with declines evident in 35 of 43 states and provinces, according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey. This annual rate corresponds to a cumulative decline of 65 percent. Partners in Flight estimates that there are still 7.8 million Chimney Swifts in the global breeding population, with 99 percent breeding in the U.S. and 1 percent breeding in Canada. The 2014 State of the Birds Report published by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, listed them as a common bird in steep decline, and they rate a 12 out of 20 on the Partners in Flight Continental Concern Score. This decline is mostly due to the lack of traditional brick chimneys and a design change in newer chimneys which tend to be unsuitable for nest sites due to the addition of caps and flues. To prevent further decline, Boy Scouts, conservationists, businesses, parks and individual homeowners have been building swift towers to help stem the decline in swift population. Chimney Swift towers are new chimney-like structures constructed specifically for swift nesting. For information about a Chimney Swift tower made specifically for nesting swifts, you can visit the CSCA website at www.chimneyswifts.org By Stefanie Hauck

 

Good places to see Chimney Swift staging Sells Middle School in Dublin – Swift Night Out is Sept 9,10 and 11 (See our field trips page for details). Dominion Middle School in north Columbus has a chimney that has hosted up to several hundred swifts in August 2013. The chimney at Bishop Watterson High School hosted up to a thousand swifts in September, 2015. The best viewing is from directly across from the school on Foster Road. Galena Village Hall (the old United Methodist Church) has a large, two-story chimney. J W Reason Elementary School in Hilliard was found to have good numbers of swifts in August 2013. Swifts also roosted at the Avery Lodge F&AM 493 in Hilliard. Pull into the alley just before Hilliard Cleaners and park and walk to the big open grassy area behind the lodge for a good view of the chimney. The Blendon #339 Masonic Lodge in Uptown Westerville, has had several hundred swifts as of August 2013. This spot is just south of the Westerville Library. If you see a chimney in your area being used by swifts for staging, please let Darlene Sillick know at azuretrails@columbus.rr.com.